In 2007, I wrote a blogpost that urged Kenyans to vote “for a stranger.” I meant this in at least two ways: one, to vote for the interests of a person you could not possibly know. This might be a person in the present, in a different geographical space, or a person to come, the descendant you could not imagine. Perhaps someone who comes into existence through genetic manipulation in a future that we can barely imagine today. In asking for this, I wanted to push thinking and action beyond self-interest, or at least to suggest it. I was also interested in what it meant to risk the genuinely unknown in Kenyan politics, which, for all the resignations and re-shuffles over close to 50 years now, has been marked by a remarkably consistent cast of characters. What, I wondered, might it mean to go for an “unknown quantity,” to move beyond what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism.”
I use Berlant’s very useful concept a lot, so let me provide her definition:
A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler, too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being. These kinds of optimistic relations are not inherently cruel. They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.
. . .
[O]ptimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving; and, doubly, it is cruel insofar as the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation, such that a person or a world finds itself bound to a situation or profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly confirming.
One might think of how ethnicity or tribe might name a structure of cruel optimism: the thing one holds on to because it confirms and affirms so much, even as its disciplinary force might impede thriving. I use ethnicity because I’m thinking about Kenya, but one might equally think of gender in these terms. It is the clinging to the promise of the thing even as it actively produces attrition, exhaustion—“it’s difficult to be this or that thing or to be in this or that relation”—that marks the optimism as cruel.
The unchanging cast in Kenyan politics incarnates the voting publics’ cruel optimism, for we complain about them all the time, even calling some of them “MPigs,” only to return them to office again and again. What might it mean to vote for a stranger? To risk something?
This time around, I’m wondering what it means to vote for IDPs and refugees.
Kenya had IDPs and refugees before the post-election violence. I use these terms as placeholders for an extended, ongoing, violent history of displacement and dispossession that has been a structural feature of Kenyan state-making from its very inception as a colonial state through its post-independent emergence. What was unique about the post-election violence of the previous election was that it forced us to consider, not ignore, the existence of IDPs as a structural feature of our politics. No longer could we ignore “border” and “edge” communities whose distance from Nairobi’s seats of power all but guaranteed their invisibility. Well, we couldn’t ignore them for a few months. Subsequently, we were encouraged to forgive and forget. And, based on a recent peace rally, political leaders have decided that as long as they forgive and forget, all is right with the world.
What would it mean to vote for IDPs and refugees? What would it mean to prioritize their needs and interest over those of an unstable, precarious middle class seduced by the promise of stability in a promised techno-future called Vision2030?
I have been convinced for some time that social mobility is not as available in Kenya as it once was. That what many people see as a new, emerging, burgeoning middle class signals less a new formation than the consolidation of something cultivated through school networks, as the children of post-independence-era professionals (teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, farmers) “spread out,” so to speak, and populate more space. To take my own family, for instance, two parents produced four children: multiply that by many families, and we see what seems to be a “significant” increase in the middle class, which, I think, can be read more readily as a spreading out and consolidation. This is not to say there’s no social mobility; it is to say that I don’t really believe the “new” middle class can be linked so readily to new(er) opportunities for social mobility.
If this is so—and let me emphasize how speculative this claim is—what we have in Kenya is an increased precariat, not middle class, one that goes by the name “youth.” But then, and this is my point, the PEV demonstrated how radically unstable middle-classness could be: it suggested that precarity was not a state one could comfortably move past. Indeed, the strikes by various professional groups over the past few years—doctors, nurses, teachers—have been about being part of the precariat. Unless one comes from established money, professionalization no longer offers the guarantee of social mobility.
IDPs and refugees incarnate the Kenyan precariat, indeed, the global precariat: removed from state protection; unable to count on community protection—as reports of sexual and gendered violence in IDP and refugee camps attest; threatened with further displacement, as the Kenyan government’s efforts to relocate all refugees from urban centers to refugee camps suggest; occupying a spatial limbo, where “home” and “house” are unstable and shifting, as is legal status; stranded in extended holding patterns, as non-citizens, non-immigrants, criminalized immigrants; criminalized and pathologized by neoliberal logics that praise “self responsibility” and scorn vulnerability and weakness and ignore structural problems; treated as disposable, forgettable, and killable. Indeed, treated as unthinkable: not worthy of thought, not worthy of attention, not worthy of imagination, as problems to be solved.
How does it feel to be a problem?
What would it mean to vote “for” and “from” the problem called IDPs and refugees?
I have been wanting not to write about this election. The lie that is political depression tells us that such wanting is personal, idiosyncratic, even desirable. Because we can choose to want. I have thought over the years about what it means to be told, to be assured, that silence is a choice by those who stifle dissent. Indeed, the remarkable consensus among our political candidates represents how successfully we have stifled the notion of politics as necessary dissent.
How does one respond to the accusation that one is silent when leveled by the person who tapes your mouth shut and then complains that you do not speak in fully formed articulate sentences? The shame, the fear, the rage, the helplessness that keeps us silent—this choosing we do not choose. This choosing we can’t not choose. And the peculiar sense that one is always trying to break silence even as one sinks deeper into its abyss. I have been wanting not to write about this election.
I have wondered, been made to wonder, what writing can do, especially as fragile coalitions formed after the previous election on the grounds of shared writing have been strained and have snapped. Writing has seemed the most fragile of bonds, unable to withstand other pressures: life, love, ambition, careerism, patriotism, militarism. It has been easy to believe that silence is a choice, that I have chosen this, that this incarnates agency. It is much easier to talk about choosing than to confess one is scared, one is tired, one is depressed, one is frustrated. So much easier to say I chose this silence.
I had decided not to write about this election. But something—call it hope, call it despair, call it duty—did not permit that not writing. And now I find myself understanding why Fanon closes Black Skin, White Masks with a prayer: “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”
Because a future can be hinged on questioning.
I am listening to Nina Simone.